Research Integrity


8. Ethics issues in qualitative research

8.1 Introduction
Ethics issues in qualitative research are often more subtle than issues in survey or experimental research. These issues are related to the characteristics of qualitative or field methodology which usually include long-term and close personal involvement, interviewing and participant observation. Field research is an approach based on human interaction, rather than one viewed as outside human interactions. Field investigators themselves are the measuring instruments.12 There are different stances regarding ethical issues in qualitative research. These include the absolutist stance, relativist stance, contextualist stance and deception model.13

The absolutist stance addresses four areas of ethical concern, namely: protection of participants from harm (physical and psychological), prevention of deception, protection of privacy and informed consent. The absolutist stance holds that social scientists have no right to invade the privacy of others. Because the invasion of privacy may cause harm, only those behaviours and experiences that occur in the public sphere should be studied.13

The relativist stance states that investigators have absolute freedom to study what they see fit, but they should study only those problems that flow from their own experiences. Agenda setting is determined by personal biography, not by some larger scientific community. The only reasonable ethical standard is one dictated by the individual investigator's conscience. No single set of ethical standards can be developed, because every situation requires a different ethical stance. The investigator is directed to build open, sharing relationships with those investigated.13

Within the deception stance an investigator may use any method necessary to obtain greater understanding in a particular situation. This may involve telling lies, deliberately misrepresenting oneself, 'dumping' others, setting people up, using adversarial interviewing techniques, building friendly trust and infiltrating settings.13

The contextualist or holistic stance in qualitative research refers to describing and understanding events, actions, and processes in the natural context in which they occur. No attempt is made to generalise to a larger population. Sampling deliberately includes those data sources that are the richest sources of information in a specific context.

8.2 Practical ethics issues in qualitative research

8.2.1 Informed consent12,14,15
Informed consent, from persons capable of such consent, should be obtained as in all other research (see also 5.2). This requires informing participants about the overall purpose of the research and its main features, as well as of the risks and benefits of participation. Consent may be given in written format, verbally and audio-taped, or videotaped.

If the investigator does not know in advance the questions that a participant might be asked, or what potential risks might be involved in the future, this must be made clear to the participant at the outset.

8.2.2 Responsibility to the participants12,14-16
The investigators' responsibility to the participants includes issues such as ensuring confidentiality, avoidance of harm, reciprocity and feedback of results.

In ensuring confidentiality the investigator may not report private data that identifies participants. One of the safest ways to ensure anonymity is not to record the names of the participants at all and to provide an information sheet that asks for verbal rather than signed consent. Categories of sensitive information requiring anonymity are the following: sexual attitudes, preferences or practices; use of addictive substances; illegal conduct; information that could damage an individual's financial standing, employability, or reputation; medical record information that could lead to stigmatisation or discrimination; any information about an individual's psychological well-being or mental health.

The risk of harm to a participant should be negligible. The sum of potential benefits to the participant and the importance of the knowledge gained should outweigh the risk of harm to the participant and thus support a decision to carry out the research. Qualitative interviews on sensitive topics may provoke powerful emotional responses from a participant. An appropriate referral source for professional help should be ready, should referral be necessary. Such referral may include authorities responsible for responding to illegal conduct.

Ideally there should be reciprocity in what participants give and what they receive from participation in a research project. The investigator is indebted to participants for sharing their experiences. Reciprocity may entail giving time to help out, providing informal feedback, making coffee, tutoring or being a good listener. The reciprocity should fit within the
constraints of research and personal ethics, and within the framework of maintaining one's role as investigator. Participants should receive
feedback on research results, because this is a form of recognition and gratitude to participants for their participation.


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